Sermon – April 10, 2016 – The Rev. Keith Owen

The Second Sunday in Easter, Year C


I hazard the guess that almost everyone here today is a little familiar with the story of St. Paul’s conversion: the Damascus Road experience.  The Jewish zealot Saul, is headed to Damascus to round up and persecute some Christians. Suddenly, a brilliant light surrounds him.  He is knocked off his horse, blinded, and hears the voice of Jesus.  Then, staggered by the experience, he goes into seclusion in Damascus, not knowing what to do next.

Most of us are at least familiar with that story.  But what comes next, is less familiar, but to me, is at least as interesting. This past Wednesday, the bible study group asked the question: who’s this Ananias person?  Listen to that part of the story again.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, lord.” The lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;

We tend to forget that part of the story.  Compared to the vivid story of the light and the voice, the bit about Ananias sort of gets lost.  But the reality is that Ananias was every bit as important to the conversion of Saul as the light and the voice on the road.  Without the ministry of Ananias, there would have been no St. Paul.  And without St. Paul, none of us would be here today.

The Bishop who ordained me, Charles Vache’, once told me an important story.  In 1980, he had invited Pat Robertson to address the annual conference of clergy in Southern Virginia.  Robertson has faded in importance in our day, but in the late 80’s and 90’s he was one of the most powerful figures in the religious right of this country, actually running for president and winning some Republican delegates in 1992.  But in the beginning, Robertson started out with a single low-power TV station in Portsmouth, Virginia, where then Father Vache’ was rector of a parish.  Vache and Robertson had been classmates at the University of North Carolina, and they remained friendly even as their theological paths diverged.

Bishop Vache’ clearly relished telling me the story.  It seems that the rector of a large and influential parish, a rather pompous fellow, stood and challenged Mr. Robertson:  “Mr. Robertson, I understand that when people who have “accepted Jesus” during one of your programs call in to your prayer line that they are referred to local churches.  Is that right?”

“Yes it is,” said Robertson.

“Well, I’ve been in your neighborhood for nearly fifteen years, and I have never yet had one of these people referred to my church.

Robertson was thoughtful for a moment, then said “Well, I just don’t want to put a live chick under a dead hen.”  Bishop Vache said he had never heard his clergy so quiet as they were at that moment.

The story of Ananias serves up to us an important and challenging idea:  you and I are responsible for the conversions of others.  You and I are called to help COMPLETE the process of conversion that Jesus begins in other people.

Ananias really didn’t want that task.  He was AFRAID of that work.  When God called, Ananias protested.  Ananias had heard of this Saul guy, and wanted nothing to do with him.  Not only does God call us to nurture the conversions of others, this story suggests that these will not always be particularly attractive people.  In fact, they may scare us to death.

Now, for us classic American, mainline, Episcopalian Christians, this is a truly jarring thought.  In America we all believe deep in our guts that religion is a private matter.  It’s what many of our ancestors came here for: the right to practice whatever religion they wanted.  That’s as American as apple pie.  So, conversion?  Well, that’s between me and my Jesus and you and your Jesus.  Religion, particularly conversion, is private and personal.

And for the vast majority of us, that private and personal decision about religion is based upon comfort.  In which denomination am I most “comfortable?”  In which parish do I most feel welcome?  Which minister do I like best?  Which music program best suits my tastes?  Who has the best programs for my kids?

We largely think of the Church as a purveyor of spiritual commodities, and of ourselves as consumers.  And our decisions in these matters are our own, private, individual.  But the story of Ananias and Paul suggests a different view:  we, who worship here week by week, are called to be the stewards and cultivators of the conversions of people out there, and the nurturers of the faith of others in here.

When God summoned Ananias, Ananias responded with the classic biblical statement of willing faith:  “here I am.”  But when God got specific, when God told him exactly which live chick he would be responsible for, Ananias hesitated.  Saul was dangerous.  He had a bad reputation.  This live chick was the enemy, the most zealous persecutor of the young church.  Ananias was afraid, and rightly so.  But, he obeyed.  He went and laid hands on Saul.

And the fact is, Saul, who became Paul, was more of a threat than Ananias even imagined.  Because this particular live chick went on to turn the infant church completely upside down.  He relaxed the standards for new recruits.  He tossed out beloved old traditions and practices.   He allowed all kinds of refuse and rabble into the church, and caused all kinds of fighting.  He was a profound trouble-maker.  But, he brought to birth the church which has survived to this day.

On occasion, new live chicks, new Sauls, will find their way to us.  There’re probably a few in the room right now.  Sometimes, they will look rather like an enemy.  They may frighten us, and for good reason.  They bring the promise of change: change that could upset our private religious comfort.

The story of Ananias calls us all to take a deep breath and go wherever God’s call takes us.  It could be scary.  But it could also very well be that the next Saul to walk in our doors could well become the Paul whom God will use to reshape and renew the Church.

So, the story of Saul being knocked from his horse and blinded by the light and called by the voice is important.  But so is the story of Ananias, without whom we might not even know the story of Saul.  So, when God sends into our lives live chicks; when God sends us half-converted Sauls, let us pray for the courage of Ananias.  Let us pray that those live chicks don’t encounter in us just another dead hen.

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